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The End of Plagues: The Global Battle Against Infectious Disease

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World-renowned immunologist John Rhodes’s The End of Plagues is “an engaging and expansive exploration of humankind’s quest to defend itself against disease” ( History Today ).

At the turn of the twentieth century, smallpox claimed the lives of two million people per year. By 1979, the disease had been eradicated and victory was declared across the globe. Yet the story of smallpox remains the exception, as today a host of deadly contagions, from polio to AIDS, continue to threaten human health around the world.

Spanning three centuries, The End of Plagues weaves together the discovery of vaccination, the birth and growth of immunology, and the fight to eradicate the world’s most feared diseases. From Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination in 1796, to the early nineteenth-century foundling voyages in which chains of orphans, vaccinated one by one, were sent to colonies around the globe, to the development of polio vaccines and the stockpiling of smallpox as a biological weapon in the Cold War, Rhodes charts our fight against these plagues, and shows how vaccinations gave humanity the upper hand.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published September 24, 2013

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John Rhodes

2 books

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5 stars
11 (16%)
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28 (43%)
3 stars
21 (32%)
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4 (6%)
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Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for GetLostMatilda ❣️ .
185 reviews2 followers
December 15, 2020
5 stars

This book provides a wonderful account of the fields of microbiology, virology, immunology and public health. It is highly readable and I believe it could be understood by people with any level of background in science. Having studied microbiology at the undergraduate level, I still found myself engaged and intrigued by interesting facts that I hadn't learned in my course. Often, we do not learn about the history and background of famous scientists, only their concepts and contribution to the field, so that was a lovely touch to this book.

A slight pitfall was the layout of the book. It would have made a stronger read if it was set out in either chronological order, or by splitting up the chapters so they focused on a single disease, microbe/virus, discovery, etc. at a time. I think this improved towards the end of the book, but early on, the chronology jumped around a lot between chapters. If you aren't hyper-focused and miss the change in time period, it makes it easy to get lost.

It would have also been valuable if the author focused more on the reasons that smallpox was able to be eradicated by vaccination and contrasted these against current diseases. For example, smallpox only infects humans, so you don't need to vaccinate other animals as they are not potential reservoirs. In contrast, rabies virus can infect a large range of animals (domestic and wild), making it almost impossible to vaccinate and eradicate the natural reservoirs.

It's a very relevant read at the moment with the development of vaccines against the novel coronavirus!
Profile Image for William Nist.
329 reviews9 followers
January 12, 2014
For a book about human plagues, this is entertaining and informative read. The history of immunology and vaccination is addressed beginning with Smallpox and ending with HIV. The story of the polio vaccines may be the most interesting, for there was an mild animosity between Drs Salk and Sabin, who each invented a different method of vaccination. So, if you are interested in the history of disease or some laymen-type info about how vaccinations actually work, this volume should be interesting to you.
Profile Image for Rachel.
1,687 reviews52 followers
November 9, 2013
Although this book caught my eye and I was very interested, I have to say I was disappointed. The author does not keep a consistent chronology and the book gets very confusing as he's bouncing back and forth between years and occurrences. I got about half way through the book and just could not stay interested in it any longer. This is unfortunate because the book seemed very interesting and I'm sure the overall concept is, but this was not written well and makes it hard to keep things consist.
411 reviews
January 8, 2014
This is a good book. It is an in-depth history of the development of vaccines, particularly those for smallpox and polio. The story of the discovery of variolation and later the use of cowpox by Jenner which led to the worldwide extinction of a major curse of mankind was well done, particularly the biographical information about Jenner.
Polio, while not extinct, has been mostly eradicated from developed countries and greatly reduced worldwide. The major players here were Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Salk developed a killed virus vaccine and not long after, Sabin developed an attenuated live virus vaccine which became the most commonly used. These two scientists had an ongoing debate about the benefits and costs of the two types. Eventually, it became clear that some real cases of polio were a result of the Sabin vaccine and the Salk vaccine is used primarily now.
Rhodes makes clear the extremely difficult drive to eradicate these two diseases- hundreds of thousands of workers, multiple organizations, countries, ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions- some of which provided roadblocks to vaccinators due to fears or philosophies. Recently, some vaccinators were killed in northern Afghanistan (or Pakistan-I don't recall which.)

Most young people today are not even aware of these diseases- and yet, smallpox (along with measles) was responsible for the decimation of Native Americans after contact with Europeans as they had no immunity. It was smallpox that allowed Cortez to conquer Mexico. Smallpox (Variola major) killed a large portion of those infected and left survivors scarred for life. Polio devastated young people, often killing, and more often leading to severe disability due to paralysis.
There was a time not so long ago, when there were hospital wards full of young patients in "iron Lungs" (external ventilators) due to paralysis of the muscles used for breathing.

I remember getting my smallpox vaccination- a vaccine no longer required. A also remember not being allowed to swim in the local pool because of a polio outbreak - and later getting the Salk (and also Sabin) vaccine in a mass vaccination effort.

These strides in medicine have saved millions of lives and tremendous suffering.
Unfortunately, there are new and serious plagues, far from eradicated.

86 reviews
September 3, 2017
I enjoy reading books in the genre of medical history and anything in the vein of infectious disease. I prefer books written in a linear chronology - parts of this book seemed to be written that way and then parts were sectioned by person or by virus/vaccine. It was confusing at parts when the author started jumping back and forth. Also a couple typos and misspellings; a personal pet peeve. Otherwise the subject matter was interesting although the bulk is focused on smallpox and polio. If you are expecting something more comprehensive I'd keep looking.
Profile Image for Paula.
306 reviews
March 2, 2022
Rhodes brings insights, anecdotes, and clarity to the challenge of covering a topic the size of "the global battle against infectious disease." In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the story of how the town of Leicester in 1890s England dealt with smallpox antivaxxers is interesting. Town officials developed a program of notification, isolation, and disinfection in preference to jailing vaccine refusers, with considerable success. "We" aren't the only ones who have lived among people who decline to participate in a solution. Today's contact tracers are using a piece of The Leicester Method.

If you are well versed in Rhodes' topic, his book will add to your knowledge. If not, this isn't the place to start. The organization of the book is baffling as are Rhodes' decisions about what to present expansively and what to skip entirely.
Profile Image for Lisa Ahlstedt.
210 reviews11 followers
October 17, 2013
The End of Plagues takes a fascinating look at the never-ending human effort to eradicate our most feared diseases, from smallpox to AIDS. Quite a lot of the book details the remarkable work of Dr. Edward Jenner, a pioneer in the field of inoculation. It was interesting to read how the "ancient Chinese" were already practicing inoculation in the form of introducing dried smallpox into the noses of infants as a way to protect them from later developing the disease. Other cultures practiced similar forms of protection, but in England in the mid 18th century, tales of milkmaids who recovered from the mild "cowpox" becoming immune to smallpox were dismissed as folklore. Thank goodness Jenner practiced in a rural area where he was able to observe that there was some truth to that old wives tale! Later chapters deal with the attempts to fight tuberculosis, polio, influenza and HIV, and how international medical communities have banded together in an attempt to defeat these and other contagious diseases. A very informative and fascinating read, especially for people like me who lack a scientific background!
Profile Image for Deena Scintilla.
686 reviews
October 30, 2013
Yea! I received as a GoodReads Giveaway and am just starting it.

A very good history of vaccine development. A lot of it was a review for me as a nurse, but I was surprised at how much new information I learned. This is not a fast read but it is written in such a manner that one does not have to have a medical background to understand or enjoy it.

I will be loaning this to a neighbor who is a retired chemist and has an interest in books on this subject.
110 reviews3 followers
December 29, 2013
An intriguing look into the progress of the vaccination methods and movements in the world. Rhodes gives both the resistances given at first by the many cultures throughout the years along with the results as each step is taken in global accomplishment against any infectious disease. Tough read as it bounces at times between time periods, but gives a very in-depth look at what all has changed throughout the world in vaccine progression.
Profile Image for Amber.
92 reviews56 followers
May 6, 2015
I received this book for free as part of the goodreads first reads giveaway. This book was really interesting, I enjoyed reading about the history of vaccination and the progress made in eliminating many of the worlds oldest known diseases. I would recommend this book to people wanting to learn more about the history of vaccination.
Profile Image for Ray Erickson.
12 reviews
May 9, 2016
I would like to have heard more about a couple of the topics covered in this book. Cholera is barely mentioned, plague is hardly mentioned, and there are a couple more that could have been covered more thoroughly, but overall a very solid work. Well written, interesting, and comprehensive.
Profile Image for Ceri Gwyther.
6 reviews
April 18, 2014
Thought this was a good history of vaccinations. It was well written and easy to read as well as full of interesting facts.
Profile Image for Anna.
119 reviews41 followers
November 1, 2014
Chapters were hit or miss, but overall this is a good, detailed history of the modern vaccine, and provides lots of solid information worth thinking about.
Profile Image for Angela.
410 reviews5 followers
March 18, 2015
Very informative. It provides a great look at smallpox and polio, along with immunology and virologists procedures over the years.
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